Those writers who indulged in a bout of needless grandstanding by reading out passages from Salman Rushdie’s contentious The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival last Friday did the cause they were ostensibly espousing very little good.
On the contrary, their symbolic defiance of the 1988 ban on the book merely served to confirm in the eyes of those baying for Rushdie’s blood that the main purpose behind the invitation to the British-Indian author was to resurrect a controversy that, mercifully, has passed its sell by date. The sundry clerics and ghetto politicians who clamoured for Rushdie’s permanent exclusion from India can now feel vindicated that they managed to contain a sinister assault on the fundamental tenets of Islam.
However, if there is one thing that is clear about last fortnight’s kerfuffle, it is that the fuss was only tangentially connected to the Satanic Verses — a book that is not openly sold in India. Since he re-established his right to visit India in 1998, courtesy the NDA Government, and then wisely procured a PIO card that assures him visa-less travel for life, Rushdie has been in India on more than six occasions and maybe more. He has delivered lectures, graced literary festivals and celebrity parties and even reclaimed his grandfather’s house in Solan. On each occasion some fringe group or other has issued statements opposing the visit and on each occasion the Government chose to ignore them. On his part, Rushdie has done nothing to either resurrect the Satanic Verses issue in India or trigger any new controversy. His behaviour in India has been careful and restrained. After all, he, more than anyone else, is aware of the huge personal costs of living undercover for at least a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his death sentence through a fatwa.
So, what was so different this time? The difference lies not so much in the fact that the Deoband seminary asked for his visa to be cancelled and that some shadowy organisation promised to reward anyone who threw a slipper at Rushdie with a prize of Rs 1 lakh. There are some bodies that exist to take sectarian positions on matters and routinely proclaim that Islam is in danger. They do it when a US President comes visiting, when Indo-Israeli ties improve, when Taslima Nasreen asks for the right of residence in India and they do it at the whiff of Rushdie. The best way for the Government to have reacted was by ignoring them. Indeed, it seemed that was precisely what was going to happen until Rushdie tweeted and the Rajasthan Government stepped into the fray.
It is difficult to accept the Rajasthan Government’s plea that it would have a hard time guaranteeing Rushdie’s safety. Equally, it is impossible to respond to the Centre’s plea that either the outlawed SIMI or a section of the Mumbai underworld was plotting to send an assassin to accomplish what Ayatollah Khomeini had desired 24 years earlier, with a straight face. What gave the game away was the fact that no one in the Government and the Congress (with the honourable exception of Manish Tewari) deemed it necessary to express a single word of condemnation for those who wanted the ban on Satanic Verses to be coupled with a ban on Rushdie the person. Notables in India are fond of tirelessly repeating that “we will not be cowed down by terrorism”. But isn’t that what precisely happened in the case of Rushdie?
The forces of intolerance scored a famous victory last week. They won because the match was fixed in their favour by the UPA Government and the Congress. And the outcome was pre-determined because with the Uttar Pradesh election round the corner, the Congress wanted to show a gesture of goodwill towards those who claim to influence the vote-banks. Rushdie lost out because the Congress was loath to have any influential Muslim body point an accusing finger at it. Those who felt offended and let down by Rushdie’s absence from Jaipur were regarded as inconsequential members of the non-voting classes. Their protests could safely be disregarded.
The monotonous regularity with which the bar of artistic freedom is being lowered should alarm all Indians. Yet, under the guise of secularism and the principle of equal respect for all religions, it has become possible for all groups with an imaginary grievance to exercise a veto power. This is a travesty but what compounds the offence is the fact that retrograde decisions are being routinely taken by people who know better, are not personally narrow-minded and pay lip service to India as an argumentative society.
The argument that compromises with democracy have to be made for the larger interests of democracy is specious. Over the years, intolerance is fast turning into the new normal with every group and religious denomination jumping into the fray. From a historical work on Shivaji, the title of a film and the morality of women to theological disputations, the agenda is being set by those resourceful enough to command a mob.
The ‘sab chalta hai’ attitude is no answer. Nor does it do to shower the barbarians with disdain and feign a sense of superiority. What is required is for a plural culture and mindset to take deep roots in society. Moral relativism has become an excuse to relegate decency to the backburner. As a state, India has eschewed dharma.